Civic Groups Must Maintain Integrity

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Civic Groups Must Maintain Integrity

Ralph Nader is a noted consumer advocate and civic activist who ran in the 2000 United States presidential election as the Green Party''s candidate. He garnered 2.7 million votes, or three percent of the popular votes, which fell short of his goal of attaining five percent - the percentage needed for the Green Party to qualify for federal funds for the 2004 presidential election.

Mr. Nader had a significant impact on the outcome of this year''s election. He received more votes than the differences in the votes for George Bush and Al Gore in eight states, including Iowa. He also played the spoiler by winning 95,000 votes in Florida where legal battles over manual vote recounting continues.

If he had not run, the majority of his votes would have gone to the Democratic candidate Al Gore, which is why Hillary Clinton, recently elected as New York senator, said she could throttle Nader.

Mr. Nader has been at the forefront of scores of citizens'' campaigns in the United States since the 1960s. He has addressed issues ranging from environmental protection and congressional reform to corporate abuses and consumer protection.

The task force of dedicated idealistic students he formed to look into the performance of key government agencies and to research social problems was dubbed "Nader''s Raiders."

When he first entered the presidential race, the New York Times, which endorsed Mr. Gore in the presidential race, and other media took a dim view of his entry into politics. He ran for the presidency anyway, with the goal of restoring the idea that government should be run by and for the people, and not dominated by the two major parties and their corporate sponsors. He also wanted to reform their campaign finance practices of spending billions of dollars.

The methods and boundaries of political participation by civic groups has always been a controversial subject.

A civic movement usually begins with modest ambitions, such as environmental protection and consumer rights. To pursue its goals, however, civic group are sometimes forced to defy the law by acts of civil disobedience or disrupt the government in order to have their voices heard. Such actions can, at times, escalate into political incidents.

What is the appropriate distance a consumer activist should keep from politics? Was Nader''s run for the presidency appropriate? What about organizing a political party like the European Green Party? How about the Korean activists who join an existing political party to pursue reforms?

During this year''s April general elections, Citizens'' Alliance for 2000 General Elections, a collection of several hundred civic groups in Korea, carried out campaigns against candidates deemed corrupt and incompetent, and therefore unfit to serve. The campaigns had a substantial impact on election results.

The success of the campaigns empowered and galvanized the civic organization. Parliamentary standing committees that used to ban civic groups from their meetings no longer do so. Civic groups have turned into a political force to be reckoned with.

For their part, civic groups appear to be trying to establish a new direction for their movements so that they can address a broader range of citizens'' rights.

Civic groups recently held a meeting, where participants reportedly denounced the illegality of their own campaigns of blacklisting candidates. They also harshly criticized themselves for allowing their campaigns to alienate citizens by becoming overly emphatic in their denunciations of certain politicians.

But civic movements, such as those to expose unfit politicians, were unavoidable in some ways, in order to challenge the law that did not guarantee them the freedom of political participation.

The past military regimes always called for law and order, and the nation''s family-owned conglomerates disguised themselves as law-abiding corporations. Under the circumstances, challenging the establishment meant breaking the law sometimes.

It is not the defiance of civic movements but their success that is worrisome. As citizens'' campaigns gain increasing influence, so will the temptation to use their new-found influence to attain political power and money.

The morality of civic groups is coming under increasing suspicion in Korea today, because some have become a political tools. The civic groups are said to have strongly condemned populism in their recent meeting.

But some sectors of society seem to regard the civic groups'' efforts for reform as partisan fighting, or a challenge against progressiveness.

Perhaps a civic movement by many that turns into a political force can no longer be defined as a civic movement.

If a civic group is incorporated into existing political force, or becomes its populist arm, it would not be able to perform critical functions. In a way, an idealistic reform movement like a citizens'' campaign is a challenge against reality that begins by preparing to accept failure.

Mr. Nader said that civic movements have to go on even if they fail, because persistence and tenacity are at their heart.

Korea''s nascent and vulnerable civic groups need to persist in maintaining an enlightened consciousness.

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